This week, I’ve been preparing to lead a workshop for parents on “parenting in the pew.” I’ve been pondering just how unique the church experience is. For so many parents, they consider it a victory if they have managed to keep their children quiet and well-behaved during worship. For many of them, taking their children to worship is akin to taking them to a business function: it’s not for the children, but they have to be there, so the parents need to keep them as invisible as possible and do whatever they need to do to make it through. I wonder if it’s possible to shift this thinking so that taking children to worship is seen as an opportunity to introduce them to and participate with them in an amazing, wonder-filled experience of God.
About a year ago, my husband and I, along with my in-laws, went to Disney World. It was the first time that I had been there since I was five years old. We had a great time, and we did a lot of observing. We paid close attention to parents and kids, noting who was struggling, who was having fun, and what the factors seemed to be. (For your information, having children under the age of four, missing naptimes, and using strollers seemed to account for most of the challenges.). We also watched the Disney cast members very closely to see how they were being hospitable, paying attention to every detail, and creating this very special environment.
One of my favorite things to watch was the way that parents were demonstrating awe and wonder to their children. This is not hard to do at Disney. Almost everywhere you look, there is something amazing. However, these parents were not just doing it because of the amazing things; they were helping their children to have a better experience. They were joining in on the fun and participating in the magic so that their children could enjoy the encounter to the fullest. It was a lot of fun watching big, tough dads wear silly hats and act like star-struck kids when a Disney character walked by. And their children were better for it. It gave them permission to exhibit joy and awe and wonder, as well, and it created a meaningful, lasting memory.
However, although I have no hard evidence to prove it, my hunch is that these same parents have a totally different posture when they take their children to church. Instead of pointing and oohing and ahhing over the amazing things that are going on around them, they are probably silently encouraging their children to be still and distract themselves with a quiet activity. Why?
A few reasons, I think:
1. Parents misunderstand the church’s expectations.
Most parents believe that the church wants them to bring their children to worship, but they also believe that the church expects their children to behave as adults during worship (sadly, many churches do have this expectation). If you brought your children to a children’s museum, would you expect them to calmly and quietly walk through the museum without touching anything? Would you want them to sit in the corner of the museum and distract themselves with a coloring sheet or iPad? No, you would expect them and want them to interact with the objects in the museum. You would want them to be delighted and fascinated by what they were seeing and doing. This is because you know that a children’s museum is for children.
Well, guess what? Worship is for children, too! It’s for all of God’s people. And when children are in worship, we should expect them to behave as children. This doesn’t mean that they should be running around the sanctuary screaming. It does mean that they will wiggle and ask questions and sing loudly and off-key. Making it clear to parents that children are encouraged to be themselves during worship is hard. It takes more than a passing comment by the pastor or other leader. It involves a shift in culture, and it takes time. But, if we consistently affirm children’s presence and participation in worship (and give parents some helpful resources for parenting in the pew), over time, the expectations will change and parents will begin to see worship as a very special experience in which they get to guide their children.
2. Parents (and other adults) have lost their own sense of wonder and awe about what is happening in worship.
There is no question that everything at Disney is absolutely amazing, and there is something magical about it that I can’t quite explain. However, at the end of the day, it is a man-made place with actors playing parts (quite convincingly, I admit!). But, in worship, what’s happening is incredibly real. In fact, it’s even more real than anything else that we experience in our lives, because in worship, we are the restored people who God called us to be, rather than the broken people who we act like each and every day.
I’ve often asked parents the following, “What if I told you that the God who made heaven and earth, who put the stars in the sky, who makes the trees grow, who knows every hair on your head…what if I told you that that God was standing outside the door right now and about to walk in?” You’d be amazed, you’d have a little knot of excitement (and perhaps a bit of fear) in your stomach. If your children were with you, you’d hold them a little closer and point to the doorway with anticipation. Well, that’s exactly what happens every week in worship. God is really, truly present with us. But, instead of us pointing him out to the children around us, we tell them to distract themselves with a quiet game. If we truly believe that God is present and showing himself to us, we won’t let our kids sit there and play on their iPods. We’ll be thrilled to share this experience with them and won’t want them to miss a second of it. This is our chance to introduce our children to God and help them to see where he is at work in their lives and in the world around them. Let’s not miss it.
3. The church does not assist parents in exhibiting awe and wonder.
The thing about the Disney cast members is that they never make you feel stupid. When we were there, we weren’t seeking out photo opportunities with all of the characters. However, my mother-in-law and I did manage to score a photo with Belle. When we got to Belle, my mother-in-law said, “My granddaughter (referring to my niece) just loves you!” The cast member playing Belle could have laughed and made a comment, but she never broke character. She smiled and told us to tell my niece that she said hello. She brought us into the magical world, and for a moment, even I believed that we were taking a photo with a real-life princess.
Church members, however, are often quite different. Many are kind and offer encouraging smiles and compliments. Some are less kind and offer an evil eye or a disparaging remark. But, very few participate in the magic with you and make you feel like you are sharing an experience together. I’m as guilty as the next person. Even when I am in awe of the mystery that is happening in my midst, I don’t want to step on parents’ toes by saying anything to their children, especially if the children don’t know me very well. When you offer to assist parents, it can come across as though you’re criticizing their parenting skills or as though you think that they can’t handle it. This, again, requires a shift in culture.
The church leadership has the challenge to create a culture in which this kind of community is genuine and expected, where everyone sees themselves like a Disney cast member who is playing a part in pointing out the magic. At Disney, even the folks sweeping the streets are in character. And, they are always willing to lend a hand. If you ask for directions or they see you struggling, they never make you feel silly or embarrassed. They’re right there with you, showing you grace and helping you find your way. In my observations, parents were not offended and did not take their offer of help as criticism of their parenting skills. They were grateful to have these partners on the journey. Our churches can, and should, offer the same sense of community.
What happens in worship is truly amazing. It may even be more amazing than Disney World. It may even be the most amazing thing to ever happen. The God who made us comes to be with us. Ordinary things like water and bread and wine become extraordinary. Sins too heavy to bear are forgiven. Normal, everyday sinners become the holiest of saints. Tiny, helpless babies are declared to be children of God. A morsel of bread and a drop of wine inexplicably nourish our souls. Heaven, which often seems so far away, comes near. Can you think of anything more extraordinary? Can you think of anything that you’d rather share with your children?
“But Jesus intervened: ‘Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” (Matthew 19:14, The Message)
Questions to consider:
- In what ways can our church encourage parents and children during worship?
- What are some steps that we can take to recover our own sense of wonder and awe about worship?
- Think back about an experience that you have had (either as a child or as an adult) where you experienced awe and wonder. What made it special?
Magical Moments in Worship to Point Out to Children:
- When the acolytes bring the light in (and out)
- When the organist plays and the choir sings the anthem
- When the bread is broken
- When a baby (or adult!) is baptized
- When we pray for God to speak to us during the sermon
- When the sunlight streams through the windows
- When someone helps someone who needs it